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The Troubling PsalmsBy Steve Bishop
For over two thousand years the Psalms have been a source of comfort, courage, and hope. The Psalter has been called the Hymnbook of the Second Temple but it can equally be called the Prayer Book of the Faithful. There are many psalms that are loved for their gentle images of trees planted by streams of water or for lying down in green pastures. Indeed, these images are comforting and cherished when we feel the need for comfort. But what about the times when we are angry? Where do we go for words when rage is the dominant emotion? Perhaps a better question is this; when we have suffered at the hands of another or when our experience has left a gash in our soul, where do we get our words of prayer?
My mentor Bernhard W. Anderson instilled in me that the Psalms were not God’s words to us but rather our words to God. As our words to God, the Psalms reflect some harsh emotions. These emotions are included in what are commonly called the Imprecatory Psalms, psalms that cry out for God to avenge the sufferer. Some know these as the uncomfortable psalms because some call for smashing teeth and killing babies. How can a Christian read these without cringing? Maybe it is best to avoid them completely, some would argue.
But lately a hermeneutical lens has been applied to the psalms that comes from Trauma Theory. Trauma Theory is not a monolithic theory and its many practitioners offer a variety of theoretical postures for understanding the impact of trauma on people. Trauma takes many forms. Some trauma is personal as when one is exposed to violence and abuse. Another form of trauma happens collectively when whole groups of people are forced to migrate from their homes to foreign lands or are invaded and forced to submit to the invaders’ terms of existence.
Dr. Judith Herman describes how trauma affects one’s perception of the world and self: “Traumatic events destroy the victim’s fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world, the positive value of the self, and the meaningful order of creation.”1 One therapeutic response to trauma encourages the victim to remember and grieve the trauma in a safe environment.
Recently biblical scholar Christopher Frechette2 has suggested that the violent and troubling psalms can be one element of recovery. These psalms focus heavily on the ‘enemy’ and seek God’s intervention on behalf of the victim. One dimension of recovery is the ability to express rage against the perpetrator of the trauma. The psalms can give expression to those feelings without actually doing any violence to another or to the perpetrator.
The “Troubling Psalms” can be read as a response to trauma at a personal and collective level. They give us words and allow us to symbolically rage against the perpetrator
How do you approach the difficult psalms?
How would you describe the effects of trauma?
In what ways do you pray the psalms?
Dr. Steve Bishop is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Seminary of the Southwest. Steve served as an ordained minister in the Church of Christ prior to undertaking graduate studies. Steve’s academic interests include the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and literary translations of it into English.
1 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror, New York: Basic Books, 1997, p. 51
2 Christopher G. Frechette, “Destroying the Internalized Perpetrator: A Healing Function of the Violent Language against Enemies in the Psalms”, eds. Eve-Marie Becker, et. al., Trauma and Traumatization in Individual and Collective Dimensions: Insights from Biblical Studies and Beyond, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014, pp. 71-84.
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